February 7, 2010

Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2010: 25, 24, 23, 22, 21

Other entries in Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2010 series: 1-5, 6-10, 11-15, 16-20, 26-30, 31-35, 36-40.

25. Deolis Guerra | Starter | DOB: 4/89 | Throws: Right | Trade: Mets

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2007     A+     21     20     4.01      89.2      80      9      66     25
2008     A+     26     25     5.47     130.0     138     12      71     71
2009     A+     16     15     4.69      86.1      95      6      57     25
         AA     12     11     5.17      62.2      62      4      49     17

When the Twins got Deolis Guerra from the Mets two offseasons ago he was considered arguably the highest-upside prospect in the four-player package for Johan Santana. At the time he was 18 years old with a 3.27 ERA, 135-to-65 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and .228 opponents' batting average in 179 innings at Single-A, which along with his 6-foot-5 frame, plus fastball, fantastic changeup, and high ground-ball rate seemingly gave him a huge ceiling. Unfortunately he's been a mess ever since.

Because the Mets pushed Guerra so aggressively prior to the trade the Twins sent him back to high Single-A as a 19-year-old in 2008 when they normally would have had him in rookie-ball with the other teenagers. He struggled there, posting a 5.47 ERA and 71-to-71 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 130 innings, and was back at high Single-A for a third stint to begin last year. The third time wasn't exactly a charm for Guerra, but the Twins promoted him to Double-A at midseason anyway and he struggled there too.

Guerra is still the third-youngest pitcher on this list at 21 years old, but has a 5.16 ERA and 177-to-113 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 279 innings since the trade while seeing his velocity drop into the 80s and his grounders turn into fly balls. No one seems quite sure how to explain the decline in his stuff, but right now he looks like anything but a high-ceiling prospect and realistically should be spending 2010 at low Single-A rather than Double-A, where he'll be by far the youngest guy and take up a 40-man roster spot.

24. Ben Tootle | Reliever | DOB: 1/88 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2009-3

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2009     RK      6      0     0.00       6.1       4      0       1      2

Ben Tootle had limited success as a college starter against modest competition at Jacksonville State, but his performance last year can perhaps be blamed on a stomach virus that caused him to lose 20 pounds and the Twins liked his raw stuff enough to make him the No. 101 overall pick last June. Tootle started 43 games compared to just one relief outing in college, but his pro debut came in the bullpen at rookie-level Elizabethton and that figures to be his long-term role.

Much like with fellow 2009 draftee Billy Bullock the Twins are hoping to take Tootle's mid-90s fastball and mold him into a late-inning reliever, although various reports suggest that his slider has the ability to be a plus pitch eventually as well. If that happens he has a chance to be pretty overpowering, but for now Tootle just has a half-dozen pro innings under his belt following a three-year college career that included a 4.83 ERA in the Ohio Valley Conference.

Prior to last season's health problems Baseball America ranked Tootle as the fourth-best prospect in the Cape Cod summer league and he went 10-2 with a 3.87 ERA and 79-to-29 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 86 innings during his sophomore year at Jacksonville State, so certainly his radar-gun readings aren't the sole reason to like Tootle's upside. Rarely have the Twins targeted power arms with questionable command, so it'll be interesting to see if they were right to adjust that strategy for Bullock and Tootle.

23. Luke Hughes | Third Base | DOB: 8/84 | Bats: Right | Sign: Australia

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2007     AA     362     .283     .356     .438      9     29     34     68
2008     AA     319     .319     .385     .551     15     33     28     70
        AAA     117     .283     .325     .453      3     11      7     30
2009     AA     229     .250     .320     .445      6     24     19     38
        AAA     157     .259     .344     .481      6     16     18     38

Luke Hughes struggled in the low minors after being signed out of Australia as an 18-year-old in 2002, but has hit well enough since advancing to Double-A in 2007 that his bat looks like a possible asset in the majors. Unfortunately his glove is another issue, with Hughes bouncing from second base to third base while also seeing time as a corner outfielder. At the plate he's been close to Danny Valencia, but whereas Valencia projects as a decent third baseman Hughes seems destined to wind up in left field.

Even setting aside his uncertain future defensively he's far from a finished product offensively. Hughes has shown very good power at Double-A and Triple-A, but has drawn a grand total of just 106 walks in 1,184 plate appearances between the two levels while striking out 20 percent of the time. He hit just .250 at New Britain and .257 at Rochester last year, dropping his career mark to .270. Hughes' power is good enough to get him to the majors, but weak secondary skills may limit him to part-time work.

Even if the Twins were willing to live with Hughes' glove at third base Valencia is clearly ahead of him on the position's long-term depth chart, so he'll almost certainly head back to Triple-A and may need an injury to Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer, Delmon Young, or Jim Thome to get a shot for a call-up as a bat to plug into the lineup at a spot where his defense won't be an issue. Hughes has a chance to be a useful player, but his many flaws make him look like a poor man's Ty Wigginton.

22. Robert Delaney | Reliever | DOB: 9/84 | Throws: Right | Sign: America

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2007     A-     36      0     0.77      46.2      25      1      56      6
         A+     17      0     1.54      23.1      19      1      27     10
2008     A+     23      0     1.42      31.2      24      1      34      4
         AA     23      0     1.05      34.1      20      2      38      7
2009     AA     26      0     2.00      36.0      32      1      40      6
         AAA    36      0     4.53      47.2      43      5      38     15

Robert Delaney went into last year with a 1.91 ERA and 185-to-28 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 174 innings as a pro, including a 1.05 ERA in 23 appearances at Double-A to finish 2008, yet the Twins had such little trust in the former undrafted free agent that they sent him back to New Britain to begin last season. Delaney logged another 36 innings there with a 2.00 ERA and 40-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio, at which point they finally promoted him to Triple-A just months before his 25th birthday.

For the first time in his career Delaney was something less than spectacular with a 4.53 ERA over 47.2 innings at Rochester, including several really ugly outings, but a .240 opponents' batting average and 38-to-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio suggest that it was more rough patch than proof of being overmatched. Of course, in either case the Twins were already skeptical enough of Delaney's upside that he'll likely need to post a sub-2.00 ERA just to be an option for a call-up in the second half.

Delaney is a fly-ball pitcher without overpowering raw stuff, so keeping the ball in the ballpark figures to be an issue, but his combination of a low-90s fastball and sharp slider has racked up 263 strikeouts in 257.2 career innings. He's not going to be a dominant reliever and is even less likely than fellow slowly promoted prospect Anthony Slama to emerge as a viable late-inning option, but Delaney's track record suggests that he can be a solid middle reliever at worst and he deserves a chance to prove it soon.

21. Alex Burnett | Reliever | DOB: 7/87 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2005-12

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2007     A-     27     27     3.02     155.0     140      9     117     38
2008     A+     28     25     3.76     143.2     151     12      84     36
2009     A+     18      0     1.99      22.2      14      0      26      7
         AA     40      0     1.79      55.1      36      2      52     19

A full-time starter for the first four seasons of his pro career, Alex Burnett ranked No. 22 on this list last year despite declining strikeout rates because of consistent success while being young for each level. He was shaping up to be a potential middle-of-the-rotation starter down the road, but instead the Twins moved him to the bullpen last season and watched as he dominated in 58 appearances between high Single-A and Double-A as a 21-year-old.

He whiffed 78 batters in 78 innings after totaling just 84 strikeouts in 143.2 innings as a starter in 2008, holding opponents to a .183 batting average while issuing 2.5 non-intentional walks per nine innings. History is filled with mediocre starters who became dominant relievers, but making the move at age 21 is relatively uncommon, especially since Burnett seemed on the path to the majors anyway with a 3.54 ERA as a starter.

Rather than looking like a fourth or fifth starter Burnett now has the potential to be a late-inning reliever, and moving to the bullpen has also pushed up his timetable considerably. Not only did he have a 1.79 ERA and .187 opponents' batting average at Double-A, of the 110 pitchers logging at least 50 innings in the Eastern League last season only three were younger than Burnett. His control has always been outstanding, so if relief work adds some velocity to his fastball-slider combo Burnett can move quickly.

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